Gravity: A Beautiful Panic Attack

I will warn you right now before we even get started with this review. If you have bad anxiety or empathetic claustrophobia (That’s a thing, right?), do not watch this movie. Because it’s one giant panic attack.

After a summer of explosions and muscles—and that awkward transition period in August—it’s nice to watch good movies again. It’s like a breath of fresh oxygen-less space (See what I did there?). I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing Gravity at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes this year. After all, director Alfonso Cuarón’s last big film, Children of Men, was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards, and it won awards at the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film & Television Arts), the American Society of Cinematographers Awards, and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Films. Plus, this is just one hell of a movie. So let’s talk about it!

Here’s how Warner Bros. describes the plot: “Gravity, directed by Oscar-nominee Alfonso Cuarón, stars Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in a heart-pounding thriller that pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone.”

Kudos right off the bat to Cuarón’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, because this movie is absolutely gorgeous. You might not recognize Lubezki’s name, but you’ve most likely seen his work before with Children of Men and Tree of Life. The opening sequence of Gravity is around 20-30 minutes, and it’s a single shot. Yes, a single shot. All it does is slowly draw us closer to a tiny speck next to the beautiful (and gigantic) Earth, which we realize is a shuttle with three astronauts on its exterior. And because it’s a single shot, it just follows the astronauts in circles rather than cutting back and forth between them. I can’t even begin to tell you how incredible this is. Also, there’s no film score in this opening sequence—just silence for a minute before you can hear transmissions between Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone and George Clooney’s Matt Kowalsky with Houston.

What’s more incredible is the fact that the action hits much faster than expected, and it kind of catches you off-guard because you’re too busy glorifying in the beauty of the cinematography and special effects (and let’s be honest, Lubezki is going to win this year). When the debris from the broken satellite crashes into the shuttle and its crew, it kicks off a very frightening chain of events. The first, of course, being Dr. Stone spinning off into space before being retrieved and pulled back to the shuttle by Dr. Kowalsky. But Cuarón only gives us a moment of relief because we immediately learn that Dr. Stone’s oxygen tank is running dangerously low, and the entire shuttle has been destroyed along with the rest of its crew. So, yeah, Dr. Stone and Dr. Kowalsky are just hanging out in space with no shuttle, no help, and no contact with Houston. Please excuse me while I throw up and cry in a corner.

Things really only get worse from there. Dr. Kowalsky comes up with a plan to rocket over to the International Space Station (ISS) before Dr. Stone’s oxygen runs out. And again, you think they’ll make it (because you’re a hopeless optimist). They do, technically. But they kind of slam into ISS and get thrown all over the place before Dr. Stone barely grasps a rope to keep from floating away. That’s when Dr. Kowalsky bravely untethers himself from Dr. Stone so that at least one of them can survive. The rest of the movie is Dr. Stone alone in space. And it’s terrible and depressing. She encounters a fire on ISS (because Cuarón wants you to have a heart attack) and has to shuttle her way over to the Chinese space station, but she gets stuck for a moment because of a damned, deployed chute (another heart attack). When she finally gets the pod detached from ISS, it runs out of fuel (more heart attacks). And she, like the audience at this point, is just thinking, “Man, screw this. I’m sad and lonely, so I’m turning off the oxygen in the pod.” I won’t spoil the rest for you because you really need to see what happens from there.

Now, here’s what I find interesting about this movie. I constantly harp on movies for not giving us enough background for their characters, yet when Gravity does this same thing, it works. We really don’t know very much about Dr. Stone (or Dr. Kowalsky, for that matter), other than the things that make them sympathetic—things like knowing Dr. Stone lost her daughter, or that Dr. Kowalsky has a charming sense of humor all the way to his inevitable death. That’s because the character development here is meant to be simple. The race to get home, after all, is the main focus. And because this movie is only 90 minutes long, it gets right to its point.

Overcoming fear, loneliness, and mortality to survive is this movie’s message, which puts the plot’s action at the forefront. Dr. Stone has to push past her own grief and become her own hero. And let’s just say the climax of this movie gave me goosebumps. It was just so intense, beautiful, and sad at the same time (Again, I won’t spoil what happens).

Overall, Gravity is an intense, thought-provoking film with beautiful cinematography, impressive special effects, and powerhouse acting from what really is a one-woman show (Don’t worry, Clooney-loonies. You still get plenty of Clooney charm). I’m already chalking this movie up for the Best Cinematography win, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we at least see nominations for Best Actress, Best Special Effects, Best Production Design, etc. This is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, and we’re not even finished with 2013 yet.

Gravity: A+

One thought on “Gravity: A Beautiful Panic Attack

  1. Gravity has only recently come out here in the UK and I only saw it Wednesday, and as a minor space nut (mostly Apollo era – I can name all Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts in order by mission off the top of my head, plus – usually – the first ten Russians) I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    One or two things annoyed me, though – for instance, Clooney scooting recklessly about on his MMU like an irritating kid on a bike, irresponsibly distracting the professionals. The way the ISS, the Shuttle/Hubble and the Chinese station were all a few miles apart – they could have been a bit more distant to put on a smidge more plausibility. Bullock twice being tossed about like a rag doll when an airlock bursts open. She should probably have been wearing cooling long johns and looked hot and bothered after her ordeal instead of tight undies and looking fragrant and freshly powdered.

    Still, never mind!

    It’s great to see something like a Soyuz – which I think is a great-looking vehicle – given major full-screen close-up screen-time both inside and out, and witness the spectacle of Bullock going hand over hand around the ISS, and all that stuff. I wasn’t so keen on the dead daughter theme – it’s a bit like pre-fridging a female character to give man-pain, a previous tragedy that doesn’t emerge as part of this story, and has no real bearing on Bullock’s choices in it thought the script tries to engineer one (I’d have thought she’s more likely to be determined to live if she had a live kid at home, not a dead one). Actually, I didn’t care for the Clooney character too much – except in the dream sequence, when he was channeling Buzz Lightyear.

    Unsurprisingly, I hardly ever spend time seeing feature films that spend a large chunk of the movie inside a Russian space capsule as there aren’t that many, but oddly, Gravity was the second time in two days that I did! On Monday I went to a screening of Gagarin: First In Space, a Russian-made biopic drama-doc of the first cosmonaut, at the Science Museum in London. So far it has only had a general release in Russia, but it should get an international release at some point. The cocktails reception beforehand took place in view of the Apollo 10 command module on permanent display there, a situation that would probably not have occurred to Gagarin or Stafford, Cernan and Young (the crew of Apollo 10) back in the Cold War 1960s.

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